The Best Politics Podcasts to Help You Make Sense of the 2020 Election

12 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

This is a strange and confusing election year—to put it mildly. And things have only gotten more anxiety-producing as the country awaits the final ballot count. It seems impossible to fathom how the spread of COVID-19, protests for racial justice across the country and a vacant Supreme Court seat will factor into who wins the presidency.

Dozens of excellent podcasts strive to offer answers to questions like, did the polls get it wrong? Why is it taking so long to count the ballots? And what happens if Biden wins and Trump won’t concede?

These shows have been doing the hard work of reporting on this volatile election cycle for months. They fact-check the candidates’ statements. They explain what is happening in the news and why it matters. And they obsessively track the polls, while pressing upon listeners that they shouldn’t let leads in the race determine whether or not they actually decide to head to the voting booth (or put a stamp on their ballots). Some feature journalists who have reported on Donald Trump and Joe Biden for years, if not decades. Others rely on the expertise of advisors who worked on presidential campaigns for Barack Obama or John McCain for insight into the 2020 race.

These are just some of the best shows that you ought to tune into to keep up with the breakneck pace of political news as we await the results of one of the most complicated and impactful elections in American history.

Can He Do That?

Perfect for you if: you want to understand the powers of the president

Ever since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, the Washington Post’s Alison Michaels has interviewed other Post reporters about the powers—and limits—granted to the American president. In the run-up to the election, the show has turned its attention to essential questions such as: What is the president’s power over the USPS? What sort of pressure can he exert over the FDA in the race toward a coronavirus vaccine? And how much federal force can the president use against protestors? Given President Trump’s fondness for executive orders, the answers will be crucial to understanding the 2020 election and how the powers of the president may be exercised in the future.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

CNN Political Briefing & CNN Politically Sound

Perfect for you if: you’re short on time

I’m cheating a bit here by pairing these two CNN podcasts together, but they have identical goals, just in two different formats—and differing levels of depth. Politically Sound is a weekly show that churns through election news in 10 minutes or less. It does an excellent job of explaining what’s happening and connecting daily events to larger themes of the election in an incredibly short period of time. CNN Political Briefing offers the same content, but on a daily basis. David Chalian hosts both podcasts, though he’s joined by Nia-Malika Henderson on Politically Sound. Choose whichever better matches your current appetite for political news.

Listen to Political Briefing on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Listen to Politically Sound on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Perfect for you if: you want analysis of the polls

When it comes to breaking down political polls, Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight set the gold standard, and while Silver excels on doing just that on the podcast, he is also flanked by political journalists like Clare Malone, Micah Cohen, Perry Bacon Jr., Galen Druke and others who can offer boots-on-the-ground insight into voters’ thinking and how Biden’s and Trump’s respective narratives might be impacting those poll numbers. Together, they create a holistic picture of the horse race. And, as with their updated Election Forecast, the team has been careful this year to contextualize and explain how the probabilities work as much as possible, so that listeners aren’t blindsided if the less-favored candidate wins.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Hacks on Tap

Perfect for you if: you want to know what both sides’ campaign managers are thinking right now

Campaign vets David Axelrod (a strategist for Barack Obama) and Mike Murphy (a strategist for John McCain) come together for a combative but friendly conversation about the 2020 campaign from the perspective of guys who have been there before. The show stands out because the two often exchange war stories from previous presidential campaigns and can offer insight into, say, how a candidate picks their running mate. They are from opposite sides of the aisle, and you will usually disagree with one of them, but perhaps that’s better than listening to hosts who align with all your political views.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

In the Thick

Perfect for you if: you want to examine politics through the lens of race and identity

Politics reporting and punditry continue to be spaces dominated by white voices. Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick hosts Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela do not shy away from from examining politics through the lens of race and identity. Along with a rotating weekly panel made up of journalists, academics and political insiders, they tackle issues concerning race that other outlets often overlook or de-emphasize. That frank conversation is needed now more than ever with conflicting narratives from the two presidential candidates about what the Black Lives Matter movement means for the election and future of the nation.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Left, Right & Center

Perfect for you if: you want to hear what the other side thinks

As its name suggests, KCRW’s Left, Right & Center features three panelists each week: one with political leanings to the left, one with political leanings to the right and a moderator, Josh Barro, in the center. The long-running podcast announced rotating panels over the summer and the most recent pairing, the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie and National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, showcase the best of the new format. They are able to debate and challenge one another on the truth behind the narratives arising from each side of the aisle in a way that’s both productive and educational for a listener who may not be exposed to people outside of their own political bubble.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

POLITICO’s Nerdcast

Perfect for you if: you want on-the-ground reporting about how this election is actually going to work

In each episode of Nerdcast, host Scott Bland talks with a different POLITICO reporter about their latest investigations, lately into issues like internal upheaval at USPS, the trials and errors of Zoom political fundraisers and how the logistics of a pandemic election are actually going to work. Amid countless podcasts following the horserace or debating the narratives of the 2020 election, it’s refreshing to listen to reporters answer very basic, often overlooked questions about how our democracy functions—or is failing to function—during a political race complicated by the pandemic.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Pod is a Woman

Perfect for you if: you want a discussion of the most important issues to women in this election

Three veterans of the Obama White House—Alejandra Campoverdi, Darienne Page and Johanna Maska—are producing a new and promising political podcast. They usually begin with a more wide-ranging conversation about the week’s political news, and each of the hosts brings her own background in politics to bear to analyze the candidates’ strategies. But most of the show is dedicated to interviews with women like former Second Lady Jill Biden, Time’s Up leader Tina Tchen and Sarah Lenti, the Executive Director of the Lincoln Project, about how they wield their power and advocate for wide range of issues.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Pod Save America

Perfect for you if: you want to hear interviews with the biggest names in the Democratic party

It’s impossible to write about political podcasting without recognizing the dominance of Pod Save America. The hosts—ex-Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor—initially made a splash during the 2016 election with their bro-y, self-satisfied Keeping It 1600 podcast. After Hillary Clinton lost that election, the hosts kicked into high gear, establishing the activist-minded Crooked Media and spawning 18 other podcasts. But Pod Save America remains their most essential listening because of its pull with big-name guests. They snagged Obama’s last interview of his presidency, and since then it’s become a necessary pit stop for every major player in the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Rational Security

Perfect for you if: you’re interested in foreign policy and national security, particularly election interference

Listening to the Lawfare Institute’s Rational Security podcast feels like having an intellectually engaging but enjoyable policy debate with your nerdy friends—if your friends just happened to be experts in national security and the law. Given that so many podcasts discuss political news more broadly, the specificity of this one is truly a boon to politics wonks: The Washington Post’s Shane Harris and his panel of Brookings Institute scholars—Tamara Cofman Wittes, Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey—can really dig into and debate complex arguments, lately with an eye toward foreign interest and interference in the 2020 U.S. election.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Slate’s Political Gabfest

Perfect for you if: you want to listen to an intellectual debate that’s been waging for 15 years and counting

Hosts John Dickerson, David Plotz and Emily Bazelon have been debating politics since this podcast launched in 2005, and they have cultivated the sort of well-honed dynamic that can only be earned after years of weekly debates about topics like healthcare policy and voter suppression. They often disagree, amicably, which makes for a much more intellectually engaging listen than a political podcast full of simpatico guests and hosts. For those who have listened for years, tuning in can be a comfort. For newcomers, it’s rare to find a podcast where the hosts can disagree without taking trumped-up stances they maybe don’t even fully intellectually endorse for the sake of creating conflict.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Stay Tuned With Preet

Perfect for you if: you want to understand the legal complexities of this election

Sometimes it feels like every politician has a podcast these days. Many are self-promotional and offer little insight into the politician herself or D.C.’s inner workings. But former U.S Attorney Preet Bharara’s CAFE podcast is a show of substance. Bharara, who served under Obama and was fired by Trump, delves into social justice issues and politics with guests, often famous ones like Senator Cory Booker and journalist Jake Tapper. Bharara’s show is at its best when he’s able to bring his legal expertise to discussions about topics like Robert Mueller’s investigation or the ethics of using unidentified federal agents at protests in Portland. And if, as some political prognosticators have warned, the election results are contested, he will undoubtedly be an essential voice to guide listeners through the legal process.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

The Brown Girls Guide to Politics

Perfect for you if: you want to meet some truly remarkable BIPOC women running for office

This Wonder Media Network show highlights some seriously badass BIPOC women in politics who unfortunately don’t get the platform they ought to have on other podcasts. Host A’shanti Gholar interviews women like Representative Barbara Lee of California and Virginia Delegate and gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy about their experiences and work in short, digestible 20-minute episodes. Their career paths are truly fascinating and inspiring—Delegate Foy, for instance, became one of the first women to graduate from Virginia Military Institute and ran for and won her office while pregnant with twins.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

The NPR Politics Podcast

Perfect for you if: you want to know what happened in the political world today and why

Need an update on the political happenings of the day? NPR has got you. But unlike a lot of straight news NPR shows, the NPR Politics Podcast allows its correspondents’ personalities to shine. They crack jokes and offer small anecdotes as they deliver the daily news and contextualize the daily barrage of political news within the larger conversations around issues like racial justice, the pandemic and Russian interference on Facebook headed into the election. If you prefer not to tune in every single day, they also produce a weekly roundup of news to catch you up on the most important stories and analysis.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

The Weeds

Perfect for you if: you are a policy wonk

In order to manage your election anxiety, you may want to dig deep into policy, polls and punditry. If so, Vox’s The Weeds podcast was made for you: some combination of Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, Jane Coaston and Dara Lind come together twice a week to discuss everything from what the Republican Party was actually trying to say about itself and its future at the Republican National Convention to the finer points of the “White Paper of the week.” Yglesias has been known to antagonize other pundits and journalists on Twitter and surely takes up points on the podcast that feel designed to irk his fellow hosts, but that makes for a lively debate.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Correction, Sept. 24

The original version of this story misstated the release schedule of two CNN podcasts. Politically Sound is a weekly show, not a daily show, while CNN Political Briefing is a daily show, not a weekly show.

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